Guest post by Brian J. Phillips
Citizens and security forces repeatedly face off in a new wave of armed confrontations in Mexico – but is it political violence?
This isn’t the issue of drug cartels. Scholars have debated if confrontations between drug trafficking groups and Mexican security forces are criminal insurgency, civil war, or terrorism (see also this and this and this), but much or most of the literature suggests that cartel violence is more criminal than political. The Zetas and Sinaloa organizations want to be left alone to make money, and otherwise do not have policy-related goals.
However, in the past year or so, a new type of bloodshed has emerged: organized vigilantism.
In more than 60 Mexican municipalities, according to my data, armed groups have formed as a reaction to organized crime. These so-called self-defense groups (autodefensas) are often heavily armed, and their firefights with drug traffickers have involved grenades and machine guns.
In some towns, self-defense groups don’t only challenge drug-trafficking organizations, but also the government. In the southwestern states of Guerrero and Michoacán, vigilante groups have “arrested” local police forces, shot up the mayor’s office, and firebombed city hall.
Self-defense groups claim local authorities are colluding with organized crime, or at least are passive toward it, and demand federal intervention.
Is this political violence, in the same vein as terrorism and civil war?
For many scholars, the distinction between criminal and political violence is that the primary goal of the former is making money or otherwise engaging in crime, while primary goal of the latter is political – either change or the status quo. This gets blurry as many insurgent or terrorist groups use criminal means to raise funds, and some political groups transform into purely criminal outfits. However, for most groups, there is a primary goal that can be identified, criminal or political.
With vigilantes it is not as clear. Rosenbaum and Sederberg’s 1970 article describes three types of vigilante motives: social control, regime control, and crime control. The first involves attacking social or political groups, perhaps to preserve the status quo. Regime control vigilantism involves trying to coerce the regime such as through a coup. Both of these phenomena seem political.
Perpetrators of crime control vigilantism, on the other hand, are probably seen by most analysts as basically criminals. The goal of enacting “justice” on criminals is a crime itself, if outside of due process.
What makes the Mexican vigilantes relatively unique, however, is that they do not only confront criminals. They directly challenge local authorities. This at least gets into the grey area around political violence.
Perhaps one barrier to this wave of vigilantism being widely considered “political” is that normally we think of insurgency or civil war as a battle against the central government – either to control it or secede from it.
Mexican self-defense groups have no such beef with the federal government (although sometimes the military clashes with vigilantes), but they do want to control or change local government. In this sense the situation in some Mexican towns could be considered local insurgency.
If this is true, scholars should think more about vigilante violence – when it challenges the government and not simply criminals – as political violence.
Regardless of conceptual discussions, vigilante violence can have serious political implications. (It often indicates government failure, and perhaps for that reason some political scientists do study vigilantism – in Latin America, Africa, or elsewhere.) The criminal violence of the cartels has clearly affected politics as well. At least because of political implications, then, this violence is worthy of our continued attention.